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Profound Simplicity, Part II:  Arming for New Missions—Aegis BMD

Profound Simplicity, Part II: Arming for New Missions—Aegis BMD

During the First Gulf War, Iraq launched some 90 Scud missiles against targets in Saudi Arabia and Israel.  USS Mobile Bay (CG 53)—at one point in the war the first battle force Alpha Whiskey ship to control air defense for a four-carrier task force—was able to track some of the Scuds over land targets.  However, she was helpless to engage.  In a February 1991 attack, one Scud narrowly missed striking an ammunition pier at the Saudi port of Al Jubayl on the Persian Gulf.  Berthed alongside stacked ammunition was the amphibious assault ship Tarawa (LHA 1) with embarked Marines.  Elsewhere along the pier were six other support ships plus landing craft.  Simply put, the US got lucky.

This operational wake-up call, on par with Egypt’s sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat with four anti-ship missiles in the 1967 Six-Day War, provided a compelling case for a U.S. Navy theater ballistic missile defense (TBMD) capability.  Vice Adm. J.D. Williams, the deputy chief of naval operations for naval warfare, joined by the “Father of Aegis,” retired Rear Adm. Wayne E. Meyer, and his former Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) Aegis sponsor, retired Vice Adm. James H. Doyle, Jr., OP-03, the assistant chief of naval operations for surface warfare, used the Al Jubayl incident to help secure support for Navy theater ballistic missile defense development.  This TBMD effort would leverage the operationally-proven Aegis and its decades of investment and research and development (R&D) to produce a sea-based ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability based on the Aegis area air defense system.  The warfare problem for Aegis BMD would be the familiar “Detect, Control, Engage”—this time applied to the interception of ballistic missiles.  The Aegis “build-a-little, test-a-little, learn-a-lot” process would now affect Aegis BMD engineering development as it delivered BMD capability to sea. 

The Naval Sea Systems Command’s (NAVSEA’s) Aegis Shipbuilding Project Office (PMS-400) determined that the rail-launched Terrier lightweight exo-atmospheric projectile (LEAP) program would serve as the transition to Aegis BMD.  Underway since 1985, LEAP was the Strategic Defense Initiative Office’s (SDIO’s) developmental effort for a liquid-fueled non-explosive kinetic kill vehicle (KKV).  LEAP’s champion was Capt. Rodney P. Rempt, an officer on J.D. Williams’ staff who was given the responsibility for initiating Navy TBMD.  Like Meyer before him, Rempt had a solid operational and technical missile defense background.  As commanding officer of USS Bunker Hill (CG 52), he had been the Pacific Fleet’s Alpha Whiskey.  He had served in the NAVSEA Weapon Prototyping Office as the initial project officer for the Mk 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) and as the program coordinator for the Aegis Weapon System.  He also had worked on the OPNAV staff in the Anti-Air Warfare Requirements Division (OP-75).  In 1992, Rempt left Williams’ staff to represent Navy BMD capabilities and initiate LEAP flight-tests at SDIO.  For the flight tests, the LEAP, a solid-fuel version of the KKV, rode as the fourth stage on a Standard SM-2 Block II extended range (SM-2ER) missile fired from the rail-launched Terrier system. 

Rempt scheduled four flight tests over the next three years, all shots from non-Aegis cruisers.  Two tests were intercept attempts, both of which failed—one due to a software error and the other to battery failure.  Yet while Terrier/LEAP achieved zero hits, it met 42 of Rempt’s 43 test objectives, the first being to demonstrate the feasibility of LEAP technology as an Aegis BMD system.  At the conclusion of Terrier/LEAP testing in 1995, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO)—the Clinton administration’s new name for SDIO—and the Navy convened a review panel chaired by retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch with Wayne Meyer as his vice chairman to recommend next steps for LEAP.  The panel concluded that the Terrier/LEAP demonstration validated LEAP technology and proved the BMD potential of the KKV.  In the panel’s view, a follow-on Aegis-LEAP combination would be the least risky and most cost-effective means to develop an operational upper-tier system for Navy TBMD.

With the arrival of the Clinton administration in 1993, ballistic missile priorities had, for Rempt and his LEAP efforts, fortuitously shifted from national missile defense to theater missile defense.  BMDO refocused programs toward a two-track development of an upper-tier, mid-course-phase interceptor and a lower-tier, terminal-phase interceptor.  With this guidance, the Navy called its lower-tier program the Navy Area Defense system and its upper-tier effort the Navy Theater Wide program.  A joint program between the Navy and BMDO called Navy Theater Wide built on the lower-tier Navy Area Defense system, the Aegis system and the SM-2 Block IV missile.  Development of the lower-tier Block IV had begun in 1987, and in the late 1990s, the advanced Block IVA met the requirements for both tiers. 

The Navy put the management responsibility for all Navy TBMD under a new NAVSEA program executive officer for theater air defense (PEO TAD) and assigned Rear Adm. Tim Hood to take the helm.  Hood came to the job with a background in Aegis project execution, having served in the Aegis Shipbuilding Project Office, PMS-400, several years earlier.  When Rempt returned to the Navy from BMDO in 1994, he was promoted to rear admiral and became the OPNAV director for theater air defense (N865).  Akin to the Meyer/Doyle relationship, Hood and Rempt worked in tandem to develop upper-tier BMD, while establishing the requirements and budgeting for the entire Navy TBMD program, planning and budgeting for Aegis, the Standard Missile, surface launchers, the cooperative engagement capability and ship self-defense systems.  During this period, Rempt conducted six key ballistic missile defense reviews covering the Navy Area and Navy Theater Wide programs. 

With Aegis now at sea, tightly-controlled PMS-400 management abated on the Aegis engineering, ship construction and in-service support side.  By 1998, the integral Aegis organization had lost its identity with many elements splintering as the result of Navy reorganization of its PEOs.  The responsibility for Aegis critical paths dispersed to a number of program offices.  Over the next four years PMS-400 was progressively disestablished. Yet in its wake, PMS-400 had established two offices to direct Aegis BMD development: PMS-451 had the responsibility for the Navy Area Program, and PMS-452 oversaw the Navy Theater-Wide Program.

Testing as Ground Truth

Once it stood up, PMS-452 became the locus of Aegis activity. It provided program continuity and the preservation of Aegis culture.  In 1998, national attention focused again on ballistic missile defense after North Korea unsuccessfully attempted a satellite launch.  The launch vehicle, a Taepo Dong-1 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) with an unanticipated third stage, suggested that the North Koreans were further along in their development of a long-range missile capability than had been believed.  Since 1997, Capt. Mac Grant as PMS-452 had been able to take the Aegis program culture and apply it to driving the Terrier/LEAP follow-on effort, the Aegis LEAP Intercept (ALI) program.  As the program manager for the Navy Theater-Wide Program, Grant was responsible for the ALI demonstrations, i.e., for making Aegis BMD work and getting it to sea.  Absent a coherent Aegis organizational structure across the Navy comparable to what Wayne Meyer had in the seventies, Grant employed an Aegis BMD Senior Advisory Team (SAT) led by Meyer that was critical for providing program continuity and expert advice for all phases of ALI through testing.  Meyer enlisted APL’s Marion Oliver, Dahlgren’s James E. Colvard, retired Rear Adm. George Meining, Pomona Division’s Ralph Hawes, career Navy civil servant Jim Whalen, Larry Shipper, retired Lockheed Martin executive Joe Threston and retired Rear Adm. Fred H. Baughman, former commander of the Pacific Missile Test Center at Point Magu, CA.  All were retired weapon system engineers. 

By comparison, the Air Force’s Western Development Division (WDD), responsible for the Atlas missile program, similarly had the ICBM Scientific Advisory Committee, chaired early-on by nuclear mathematician John von Neumann.  The Polaris Special Projects Office had its Steering Task Group (STG) chaired by the SPO chief scientist, William F. Whitmore, and composed on senior scientists representing Polaris contractors, including the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory’s Charles Stark Draper, Willis M. Hawkins of Lockheed Missiles and Space Company, Harold Brown of the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC’s) Livermore Laboratory, Werner R. Kirchner of Aerojet General and George Mechlin of Westinghouse.

The ALI program focused on development of the SM-2 Block IVA – the missile that became the upper-tier Navy Theater Wide SM-3.  The SM-3 was a smaller missile, reduced to fit into a Mk 41 VLS tube, that ran with new software adapted from the Terrier/LEAP demonstrations.  The ALI had to develop a sea-launched missile that could (1) remain stable during the second- and third-stage separations and subsequent flight and (2) maneuver above the atmosphere to position itself to enable the LEAP to make the intercept. 

Grant drove ALI testing with Meyer’s accelerated, incremental, build-test-learn approach.  PMS-452 tasked USS Lake Erie (CG 70) as the theater wide support platform for ALI flight testing of the SM-3 on the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) off Kauai, Hawaii.  The ship had already received a software and hardware upgrade package called Linebacker, designed for the short-to-medium-range threat.  ALI flight tests began in 1997.  While the initial test failed because of a hardware fault in the missile’s steering control section, the first FM-2 and FM-3 flight tests in 2002 yielded successful mid-course intercepts against non-stressing targets (less than fully operational tests), meeting the ALI objectives and validating the program.  The FM-4 test at the end of that year involved a short-range target that mimicked the signatures and trajectories of threat missiles.  ALI made the intercept in the ascent phase, resulting in a DoD report that Aegis BMD was ready for emergency deployment.  The next six-flight test series that began in November 2005 with FM-7 involved separating targets and ultimately included intercepts in the terminal phase of flight, SPY-1 radar and system upgrades, Aegis version 3.6 software and near-simultaneous intercepts of missile and air-breathing targets.

The original 1999 program baseline for the Navy Theater Wide BMD projected initial capability in the 2006-07 timeframe.  Yet in October 2004, Raytheon delivered five SM-3 Block IA missiles to the fleet for operational use, and the previous month the USS Curtis Wilber (DDG 54) put to sea from her homeport of Yokosuka, Japan, on the Navy’s first BMD patrol.  Grant and PMS-452 delivered Aegis BMD ahead of schedule, having met their cost goals and met or beaten the program’s milestones. 

In 2002, the Bush administration restored national missile defense as a ballistic missile defense priority and re-titled BMDO the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).  The renamed MDA now had authority over all BMD programs, including PMS-452 which it re-titled PD-452, the Aegis BMD Program Directorate.  In 2007, PD-452 re-located to the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, where today it functions as the keeper of the Aegis legacy and the central node of the Aegis network of offices.  As Wayne Meyer came to call it some years ago, MDA’s PD-452 is “PMS 400 in exile.”

In 2008, Operation Burnt Frost shot down an errant U.S. satellite and illustrated how far the Aegis BMD program had come. It rapidly was able to “turn to” in response to a threat or an opportunity to demonstrate the program’s advancing capability.  Burnt Frost was a six-week effort among a Navy, MDA and industry team that made modifications to the SM-3 missile and Aegis 3.6 aboard USS Lake Erie, the shooter, while engaging in extensive materiel, electronic and training preparations.  The satellite target intercept took place at an altitude higher than 150 miles and at a closing speed greater than 22,000 miles per hour—representing a target traveling higher and faster than any engaged during years of testing the national Ballistic Missile Defense System and Aegis BMD systems.  As such, the task required longer radar and missile-seeker ranges, extended missile flight time and greater guidance accuracy.  With one shot, the Burnt Frost operation demonstrated Aegis BMD’s value in a national missile defense role.

Similarly, Aegis BMD’s April 2011 Fleet Test Mission 15 (FTM-15) “Stellar Charon” resulted in a successful intercept of a target intermediate-range ballistic missile. FTM-15 was the first test of the Aegis BMD version 3.6.1 system software using tracking data obtained by remote off-board sensors to launch an interceptor to engage and intercept an IRBM target.  The test demonstrated the Obama administration’s European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) Phase I final-form BMD capability. It had performed a sea-based intercept of a medium- or intermediate-range ballistic missile with an SM-3 Block IA, with cueing from a forward-based sensor.

As Aegis BMD’s first test against an EPAA Phase III IRBM threat, FTM-15 used an enhanced EPAA Phase I Aegis BMD architecture to prove a “launch-on-remote” capability.  Launch-on-remote was not a capability planned for use until the Aegis 4.0.1 system software and the SM-3 IB come on-line.  The Stellar Charon test featured an Aegis BMD destroyer, USS O’Kane (DDG 77), firing a Block IA missile in response to remote sensor data provided by a forward-based, transportable AN/TPY-2 X-band radar.  This remote sensor data constitutes the “launch-on-remote” capability that was so new.  The missile target launched from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll, 2,300 miles southwest of Hawaii and flew northeast toward a hypothetical impact zone in the Pacific.  The TPY-2 on Wake Island detected and tracked the threat missile and sent trajectory information to MDA’s Command, Control, Battle Management and Communications (C2BMC) system operated by the 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command at the 613th Air and Space Operations Center at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.  Receiving data from all sensor assets, C2BMC simultaneously provided situational awareness of the engagement to U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Strategic Command and processed and transmitted the remote target data to O’Kane.  At the same time, two MDA demonstration Space Tracking and Surveillance Satellites (STSS) acquired the target missile and provided stereo “birth-to-death” tracking of the target.

Eleven minutes after the target launch, O’Kane, on station to the west of Hawaii, used the remote data to develop a fire control solution and launch her Block IA interceptor.  O’Kane’s AN/SPY-1 S-band radar eventually detected and acquired the target IRBM as it continued along its trajectory.  As her interceptor maneuvered to a point in space designated by the fire control system, O’Kane’s Aegis BMD weapon system uplinked the target track information to the missile in flight.  Finally, the SM-3 IA released its kinetic warhead. The warhead acquired the target and diverted into its path.  With the force of a direct impact, the warhead destroyed the threat warhead in a hit-to-kill intercept—after it too had separated from its booster missile.

The Obama administration’s missile defense policy, the Phased Adaptive Approach, had provided for a full launch-on-remote operational capability to arrive in 2015, i.e., during the regional European PAA Phase II.  The successful FTM-15 intercept meant, however, that the SM-3 IA, supported by a sensor and command and control (C2) architecture providing forward cuing, gave Aegis BMD ships on Phase I deployments an immediate initial launch-on-remote capability to intercept an IRBM.

Build-Test-Learn for Saturn V, Atlas and Polaris

A success in missile testing depends on whether or not the test collected enough information, including telemetry data, to satisfy primary and secondary test objectives, e.g., for minor design change or initial check of the whole system.  Like the Aegis BMD tests, the Saturn V, Atlas and Polaris programs all relied on a series of rigorous tests to prove and improve their capabilities.

In the case of Saturn V, none of the 32 Saturn vehicles, test or operational, failed—neither for the ten Saturn I launches, nor for the Saturn IBs, nor for the thirteen Saturn V launches.  For Saturn V, five launches took place before the 1969 Apollo 11 mission that first landed men on the Moon.  The first Saturn V vehicle, the AS-501, launched in November 1967.  The Saturn program was characterized by stringent reliability and quality assurance during manufacture and an exhaustive ground testing cycle of ground tests, static firings and demonstration flight tests.  The Saturn program conducted computer checks using the 1963 Acceptance Test or Launch Language (ATOLL) for plant, static firing and launch site operations.  Saturn checkout involved 500 test points. These test points were important - the AS-501 and the following two Saturn V vehicles had stage checkouts that revealed 40 serious defects.  As a consequence, with respect to the AS-501, the onboard Instrument Unit (IU) logged only 40 questionable measurements and two confirmed failures out of 2862 in-flight checks of the Saturn V portion of the mission.  The third Saturn V launch was the first manned flight around the Moon in December 1968, Apollo 8. 

The Atlas A series of missiles began flight testing at Cape Canaveral in 1957 primarily to test its single-stage airframe and propulsion system.  After two initial launch failures as the X-11, Atlas 4A, the full-scale prototype, had its first successful flight in June 1957.  Although the Atlas 4A was recorded as a partial success as a 24-second flight, it proved its pressurized tank design could withstand stress.  The test was pivotal, for the decision to go with aerospace engineer and structures specialist Karel “Charlie” J. Bossart’s tank design that had failed in a test earlier that year met with skepticism from many experts, notably Wernher von Braun and his Saturn team.  In the test flights conducted at Cape Canaveral, the Atlas A had only four successes in eight attempts. 

The first successful flight of the one-stage Atlas A finally came in November 1958 when the missile flew for 600 miles.  The Atlas became operational in 1959.  Advancing Soviet ICBM capabilities required silo basing and Atlas upgrades - the Atlas B, C and D missiles.  The Atlas B series began in July 1958 and had three engines, in the so-called 1.5 stage missile system at the 6,000 mile range.  The testing tested booster and nose cone separation as well as the overall propulsion system.  The Atlas B had ten flights, nine of which were sub-orbital as an ICBM going five for nine successes.  The other flight, the seventh, placed a satellite in low Earth orbit, the first Atlas orbital launch.  In a series of sub-orbital launches that tested Atlas C long-range guidance and the nose cone, the flight record was three in six. (The Atlas C was configured very similarly to what would become the operational Atlas ICBM.)  The first operational deployment came a year after its first successful flight in September 1959 as the Atlas D, an operational test launch at Vandenberg AFB in California.  Ultimately the WDD developed six versions of the missile.

For the record, the first ten Atlas missiles carried 1757 individual test measurements that were telemetered; 1626 were received and recorded, an average of 92.5 percent.  Additional data came from virtual Atlas flights conducted by Convair Astronautics’ computer laboratory using an IBM 704 computer.

Polaris was a progression of missile systems—the A-1, A-2 and A-3—as a means to introduce increasing interim capabilities.  SPO planned for many Polaris firings thus reducing the number of test objectives per flight.  The first Polaris launch was in 1958 at Cape Canaveral, two years into development.  It was a Polaris AX test vehicle, and the launch failed.  Five other partial successes or failures followed until the first successful flight in 1959.  Altogether, SPO logged seventeen flights: five successful, eleven partially successful and one failure.  Successful launches of a tactical prototype, the Polaris A-1X, followed into 1960.  The first submerged launch of a Polaris A-1 missile from a submarine came in the summer of 1960, leading to the first Polaris deployment later in the year. 

For the A-1, Polaris racked up 40 flights: twenty-eight complete successes, eleven partial successes and one failure.  The first live Polaris test of the A-1 took place in May 1962 with the legendary Frigate Bird shot that was part of the Operation Domenic nuclear warhead tests in the PacificEthan Allen (SSBN 608) launched an A-1 with a live warhead in the first and only full live test of a U.S. strategic missile, the only one ever done for an ICBM and warhead.  The A-2 and A-3 progressively increased range.  A-2X missile tests began in November 1960, achieving a total of 28 flight tests with nineteen successes, six as partial, three as failures. In October 1961 came the first successful submerged launch of an A-2.  The missile became operational in June 1962, allowing SSBN deployments in March 1963 to extend beyond the Norwegian Sea to the Mediterranean.  The A-3 variant introduced multiple re-entry vehicles. In sum, the build-test-learn examples of the Polaris, Saturn V and Atlas missile programs were the legacy models of profound simplicity, and they continue to inform development of Aegis BMD today.


Since its first test in January 2002—the Stellar Eagle FM-2 intercept by an SM-3 Block IA—the Aegis BMD program has had 35 successful hits against 42 ballistic missile targets.  Aegis evolved from an area air defense weapon system to a combat system that includes anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and strike capabilities.[1]  It then went from a single-ship system to a system of mutual support for a fleet.  Today, it is becoming a deployed and operational component of regional and national ballistic missile defense.

Although Aegis was originally a Cold War-era system, Aegis BMD today is enabling the Navy to return to its historical role as the nation’s provider of general purpose fleets operating away from U.S. shores executing the sea control mission.[2]  The warfare problem is the same, though re-stated—“Detect, Control, Engage.” Aegis acts as a counter to the anti-access/area-denial strategies represented by regional ballistic missile threats from Iran and North Korea.  Within the nation’s ballistic missile defense policy, the Phased Adaptive Approach, Aegis BMD has been serving as the centerpiece for deterring and defending against threats to American allies in Europe, Northeast Asia and elsewhere.  Aegis BMD has been a non-proliferation tool to deny regional adversaries from using their offensive missile capabilities as instruments of diplomatic coercion.  In that context, Aegis BMD facilitates military and diplomatic options to preemption and retaliation.  However, today in Northeast Asia, the dynamic regional crisis environment involves a ballistic missile-armed regional adversary demonstrably intent on expanding his capability.  In response, Aegis is at sea as a warfighting capability—again, as a combat system that includes not just BMD and area air defense, but also ASW and strike.

Behind Aegis is a uniquely American culture—the Aegis culture that is Wayne Meyer’s legacy.  Remembered as the Father of Aegis, or simply FoA, Meyer was to Aegis what Hyman Rickover was to Navy nuclear propulsion.  Meyer applied his understanding of profound simplicity to found an integrated system engineering approach and organization to design, develop, field and support a complex combat system, as the solution to a specific warfare problem.  At each step of the way, Aegis has had the benefit of forceful and capable leaders like Meyer with operational and administrative experience, backed by equally competent sponsors to forge the high-level collaborations that got Aegis to sea. 

Aegis and Aegis BMD have based development on proven systems or technologies, at times innovatively applied.  The urgency behind the warfare problem has informed the trade-offs of system parameters.  The Aegis culture has been more about goals than requirements.  The demonstration of feasibility has been paramount—whether the system can be built; whether its components can work individually and together as a system; and most importantly to what degree it can provide an interim initial capability as technologies advance and threats change.


[1] Capt. Michael J. Miller, USN (Ret.), Vice Adm. James H. Doyle, USN (Ret.) and Vice Adm. J.T. Parker, USN (Ret.) “The Aegis Movement—An Operational Perspective” Naval Engineers Journal: The Story of Aegis, Special Edition (2009/Vol. 121 No. 3), p. 211.

[2] Ibid., pp, 212-13.


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